The term legalism has become something of a weapon in the Christian community; one that is only slightly less used than ‘Judge not lest ye be judged‘. It is often used as a shield, both offensively, and defensively.
In terms of offensive use it’s intended to smash the person it is used against. Indicating a Pharisaical behavior on their part as a means to shut them down and discredit them. The Pharisee’s were often rebuked by Jesus for attempting to hold people to the law but failing to recognize the spirit of the law. Though, I think it’s important to note that frequently the Pharisee is rebuked because they are not actually keeping God’s law, just their own man made version of it, and often even failing at that, while expecting others not to. Total hypocrisy.
The term legalism is used in a defensive stature most often when a professing Christian is confronted about sin, or they simply don’t like what is being said. I have frequently heard that it is legalistic to teach that the scriptures exhort us to refrain from the things of this world in terms of sin. That if we follow the teachings of scripture, we’re unlikely able to justify sitting down and watching coarse, sinful material on television, or in movies. It seems that staring at seductive, mostly naked women, or sex scenes, and hours of violence is something which scripture would have us avoid. But teaching that, is considered legalistic by those that would defend their right and freedom in Christ to partake in such activities.
The problem is, this isn’t actually legalism. To adhere to a standard laid down by scripture as a way of life is not legalism but rather it’s Christianity. To adhere to a bunch of rules, in an effort to earn salvation is legalism. It’s not possible for the simple obedience of God’s commands to be legalistic in the negative light it has been shed in. There are far too many teachings by Jesus and the Apostles to indicate otherwise. The most obvious teaching being, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.”
Some will reduce Christ’s commands to love God with everything, and Love others as yourself. These are a summary of the law, but standing alone they are meaningless. Without any of the other commands, or laws, how do you define what it looks like to love God? Did Hitler love God? If there is no standard to judge by other than these two commands then by Hitlers own personal perspective of what it means to love God, perhaps he did. Does the Muslim extremist love God? They are adamant about the fact that they do. They carry out many of their actions in the name of loving Allah. As you can see, if you do not reach outside this summary command to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, what it means to do so becomes completely arbitrary.
What does it mean to love others as ourself? Without the scriptures this too becomes arbitrary. The way we live our American Dream life, at the expense of helping more of the suffering in the world is a great example of how a lack of other scriptures lead us to the ability to interpret this any way we want. The fact that we consider it loving to tell someone we will pray for them, but do nothing to ease their burden is another example of how our view of loving others differs from scripture. Don’t you think that Hitlers’ doctors thought they were loving others as themselves while they tortured Jews to death in an effort to find cures for different ailments as they tried to create the perfect race? I’d bet if asked, they’d believe they were doing what was best for humanity as a whole. Some might consider this research at any expense a form of loving others as themselves. After all, they want cures for and fixes for medical issues, certainly others do as well.
Without the rest of what God’s word teaches, these two commands are without value to us. They do not teach us how to execute them, or what the following of these two things might look like. Just because we are not under the law(under it’s control and condemnation) as Christians does not mean we are not to obey it. We don’t obey God’s laws as a means to salvation. No, salvation is a free gift from God. But the evidence of said salvation is that we have a desire to keep God’s laws and decrees just as he suggests in Ezekiel 36 and John 14 among other places. This is obedience, not legalism.
Works righteousness however is another story. This is the idea that somehow, a person thinks they can actually earn favor with God in terms of salvation or otherwise by doing Good. That by keeping the commandments, or various decrees that we somehow have earned an entitlement to enter heaven. Works righteousness sneaks up on us. Many people believe they are a good person. The reasons for their goodness varies Some of the reasons I’ve heard while witnessing are: I donate my time at church, I cook and bake for our outreach events, I donate time to the elderly, I give to the poor, I’ve been on missions trips, I have devoted my life to the ministry, and the list goes on.
Other people believe they are wretched, but they are saved by works. Some of the examples of this manifest themselves in: I prayed a prayer, I accepted Jesus when I was N yeas old, I confess my sins to the priest, I fight for the weak, I have mercy, and more.
In both cases people believe they have done something, that they have followed some rule, that some how earned them merit with God which results in their deserving of eternal glory in heaven. These things are no different than the Pharisee who kept all his self made rules and decrees. This is legalism.
We need to be careful that we’re not using this term as a shield to fend off people who are saying things we don’t want to hear. It can be tough. I recently read a book which had me on the verge of thinking the author was being legalistic throughout almost every chapter. But when I took the time to test his writing against scripture I realized he wasn’t being legalistic, he was showing me the real biblical standard and I fell far short! That’s kind of the point of Christs death on the cross. We couldn’t atone for ourselves, and God’s love for us drove him to take care of the problem.
Desiring to keep God’s laws out of a desire to do so because of our love for him is not legalism and professing Christians need to stop calling it such. Doing works of any kind in an effort to earn salvation is legalism, and we need to identify that as such. It is only through faith, by the grace of God which we are saved, but our love for him will cause us to want to live in obedience to his laws and decrees, and we should encourage and help our brothers and sisters to do the same!